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It's the rebounding, stupid: A statistical look at why UConn is mediocre

As you may or may not know, this blog depends on both a grant from the National Science Foundation, and the support of viewers like you. (Thank you.)

So I should note that the inspiration for this post comes from this comment from Ponta, in my "lost season"/"crazed Louisville fan thinks we read/steal things from his blog" piece from Monday night.

Read, and take note of the wisdom:

I think the biggest challenge we face right now is defensive rebounding [...]

Here’s something that we have the personel for. And, unlike a halfcourt offense, something that could be turned around in a season. And it plays to our strengths, namely, playing in transition. We’ve always let teams take three pointers, on the notion that it’s a low percentage shot and when we get the rebound we can take a high percentage shot in transition. The key is to not allow easy shots in the paint. But here we are, allowing second chance points up the waz. The offense is currently built around outrebounding the other team by ten, just like it has been for years. Except, we aren’t doing that.


I admit to overlooking the little things (like "not staring at a free throw instead of boxing out" ((C) Stanley Robinson 2010) in favor of easier-to-point-out things like "not having anyone who can shoot the ball from more than 10 feet away." It certainly seems as if UConn's been poor on the boards all season. The raw numbers point to that being the case; UConn is outrebounding foes on average, 39-36, well below last season's 43-34 margin.

But raw numbers aren't everything, as Basketball Prospectus' John Gasaway notes in this amazingly-titled article. Rebound margin is of course a function of missed shots, but also of how many turnovers a team commits.

Seeing as I am nothing if not a scientist-in-training (note: may not be true), I decided to utilize Ken Pomeroy's wonderful statistical emporium to figure out if Ponta's wisdom held true. His stats go all the way back to 2004, so I used my mad Excel skillz to put the key stats into sexy line-graph form.

So, what's the difference between the five really good teams of the last six years, and this year's apparent disaster? I gave it away in the headline, but check out the facts below the jump.

First, a couple notes. This is our second foray into quasi-in-depth statistics-based analysis here on the blog, so bear with us. Obviously, statistics don't tell the whole story, especially on an individual level. And they ignore the intangible contributions and leadership from different players (until they invent the Jeff Adrien Memorial Chest-Pounds Per Minute stat).

But on a team level, I think you'll find these graphs elucidating.

Now, for those of you who don't keep up with the cool kids' statistical analysis, Pomeroy's stats page (which I try and fit into every game preview somewhere) primarily tracks the "Four Factors" of offense and defense - the four stats which give the clearest picture of a team's efficiency on both sides of the ball.

Those stats are:

  1. Effective field goal percentage (which "takes into account the extra value of a made 3-pointer")
  2. Offensive rebounding percentage
  3. Turnover percentage
  4. Free throw rate

Further details can be found here.

As I said, KenPom's stats go back to 2004, and for purposes of comparison, here's how the last seven seasons of UConn basketball have looked, from an overall efficiency standpoint. The "Offense" and "Defense" columns represent how many points UConn scored or allowed per 100 possessions (or, you can divide those numbers by 100 to figure out how many points per possession the Huskies scored/allowed).

Team Offense Natl Rank Defense Natl Rank W-L Record Season Result
2003-2004 119.9 4 85.5 5 34-6 (12-4) NATIONAL BY GOD CHAMPIONS
2004-2005 114.3 26 87.0 7 23-8 (13-3) Fuck you, Julius Hodge
2005-2006 119.2 3 89.9 16 30-4 (14-2) Fuck you, Cinderella
2006-2007 104.3 85 85.8 7 17-14 (6-10) Fuck you, NIT
2007-2008 117.3 17 92.3 41 24-9 (13-5) Fuck you, DeJon Jackson
2008-2009 116.6 15 84.8 3 31-5 (15-3) FINAL BY GOD FOUR
2009-2010 108.5 74 90.7 35 13-9 (3-6) ????? (or: Fuck you, CBI)


So to wrap up: the '04 team was crazy bananas, the '06 team was a great offensive team that imploded on defense in the G*org* M*s*n game, the '09 team was a defensive machine. The other four teams were a step (or two, in the 07-08 team's case. Or three, in the case of Jerome Dyson's freshman and senior years) behind.

The chart does intuitively make sense (except I don't remember the 07-08 team being that bad defensively). UConn's worst recent teams have been relatively abhorrent on offense, well outside the top 50 in the country, and the defense has been fairly rock solid for a long time, though noticeably worse this year compared to last year.

But, now we need to break down UConn's efficiency, using the Four Factors.

First up, the EFG% graph.

efg graph

The guard/wings' shooting has ranged from solid (Stanley Robinson, 51.3) to fairly mediocre (Jerome Dyson, 46.7, Kemba Walker 45.1) to poor (Tuff McJuice, 39.6).

The biggest difference between this year and last year is in the post, though. Gavin Edwards (64.1) and, weirdly, Charles Okwandu (64.7 in a tiny number of possessions) have been efficient, but the remarkable thing is that no post player has used more than Edwards' 15.1% of possessions.

Jeff Adrien (20.9 of the team's possessions), Hasheem Thabeet (19.6) and 2009 Gavin Edwards (15.4) all bested the current version of Gavin's numbers from last year.

Of course, after watching Alex Oriakhi, Ater Majok and Okwandu work in the post, maybe that's for the best. Still, it's tough to score when you don't have shooters and you don't have a big man or two who can score easy baskets.

Next up, turnover rate:

topct graph

UConn's turning the ball much more than it did last year, which passes the eye test. They're also forcing more turnovers, although this is the third straight year the Huskies would finish in the bottom 50 in America in defensive turnover rate according to Pomeroy.

But it's not clear how meaningful that is. UConn hasn't been a turnover-forcing team for as long as I can remember, and they win with defense, rebounding and a consistent free throw disparity.

Hey, speaking of which:

oreb pct

We have a WINNER~!

It appears that Ponta was pretty much on the money with his comment, and if anything, he understated the problem. Not only is UConn's defensive rebounding a major issue, UConn's offensive rebounding has sucked fairly royally, too.

This year's UConn team is putting up its worst offensive rebounding effort since at least 2004, in the same season the Huskies are putting up their worst defensive rebounding numbers in the same timespan.

If you didn't already appreciate the talents of Thabeet and Adrien, you should now. The two both finished in the top 250 nationally for offensive and defensive individual rebound percentage; only Oriakhi (225th offensive; 300th defensive) comes close to that mark.

When you think about it, these numbers make sense. Adrien was a bruiser who was not afraid to fight anyone for a rebound; Thabeet had a 27-foot wingspan and a rather notable height advantage. And, oh yeah, both had played against Big East competition together for three years.

Oriakhi and Majok could be a rehash of that ridiculous rebounding 1-2 punch one day. If they pick up a bit of toughness and aggression this offseason, it could even happen relatively soon. I mean, Majok already looks like he might destroy everyone in his path, leaving them in a puddle of their own fear-urine under the basket.

In time, I'm confident that both will be solid players and exceptional rebounders. But of course, they're not Thabeet and Adrien yet. And it was foolish to underrate how much UConn would miss them. Sorry about that. It'd be easier if those two had some help, though.

Edwards and Sticks theoretically should put up better rebounding numbers given their size, but one may be a teensy bit soft and the other might have problems focusing on the game at any given time. Okwandu is kind of just there. Maybe the Michael Bradley/Cleveland Melvin combo can come in and provide some production, although that of course remains to be seen.

And so there you have it. UConn's not rebounding nearly as many of their misses, which, combined with the increase in turnovers is making an average-shooting team into an average-scoring offense.

On the flip side, UConn is also not rebounding nearly as many of the other team's misses, giving up cheap second-chance points. It seems to me that this is due to a combination of 1) UConn's guards getting beat off the dribble consistently, leading to; 2) the need to for the weakside post player to play help defense (read: go for the highlight-reel block instead of boxing out);  and 3) just a plain lack of focus/intensity while boxing out.

Given that UConn's lost five games by five points or less, even a slight improvement on either side might mean the difference between 13-9 and 15-7 or 16-6.

Finally, this last graph isn't so much informative as it is mindblowing. I present the free throw rate graph:

ft rate

My god, what a magnificent graph.

In 2007-08, UConn basically doubled its opponents' free throw rate. Last year, they actually IMPROVED on that, becoming the sixth-best team in the country at getting to the line, and the least-likely team to allow opponents to get to the line.

I don't even really have a point here, because UConn regressed a little bit, as was expected. But man, last year's team was just absurdly awesome.

So anyway...what are my final conclusions?

Me being a Debbie Downer, things clearly don't look good. And pessimistically, I'm not sure if all of these downward trends can be fixed this year. Jim Calhoun sweats toughness (and sweat) and breathes anger (and sweat), so perhaps his return will light a fire under Oriakhi/Majok/Edwards/Robinson and at least fix the rebounding problem.

Calhoun's return is the only reason I'm not entirely willing to close the curtain on this season. Things look very bad right now, but there's the possibility they can get better.

Coach Cal's return is pretty much the final trump card, though.

If Calhoun were to come back this Saturday and UConn threw up stinkers against DePaul, Syracuse and CIncinnati, then we'll pack it up, look forward to the Roscoe Smith era, and pray that UConn picks up another really good guard, another really good post player, and make a run at the 2011 and '12 national titles.

Of course, if Calhoun comes back and UConn wins its next 18 games and the national title (shut up, Porter), then we'll just pretend none of this bellyaching ever happened.

And if it's somewhere in between, we'll probably just complain a bunch at the time and then retroactively love this team. It's what we do.